I went to my first convention when I was 12 years old. It was a small show held in one of the dining halls of a local Holiday Inn. There were maybe 20-25 retailers there, and that was pretty much it. No special guests, no panels, no one to try to get autographs from, not even a single cosplayer. I spent an hour, maybe an hour and a half, looking through everything, buying whatever cool stuff I was able to afford, and was done. Obviously, I was too young to drive myself back then, and relied on my parents for transportation, and they graciously got me to that twice-yearly show as often as they could. And every time I had pretty much the same experience, with the one notable exception of winning their raffle one year and getting an extra $50 to spend at the show.
In 1985, I went to my first convention of any notable size, the Mid-Ohio Con which was then held in Mansfield, OH. In addition to enough retailers to fill a county fairgrounds, they had artist John Byrne as the special guest. He had just announced he was leaving Marvel for DC in order to completely revamp Superman, and the autograph line was long. I spent well more time at this show, but still only wound up doing nothing more than visiting retailers’ tables and purchasing what I could afford.
What all my early convention experiences did for me was set up a template for how I thought they ought to be. Namely, that a convention was all about access to goods and services (autographs) that were normally unavailable to me. Because these retailers and celebrities were coming to a centralized location, that permitted me to meet with them, where I would ordinarily not have that access.
As I got into my 20s and 30s, I found myself leaving conventions disappointed. Not because I couldn’t find whatever Holy Grail I was searching for at the time, but because my experiences were solitary. Either I couldn’t convince friends to attend with me, or I was unable to meet up with them for some reason. On the couple of occasions where I did meet up with someone, they were brief exchanges before we would head back into the retailer areas individually.
I attended another small show last weekend. I spent maybe an hour walking the floor looking at what the retailers had, buying a few things that struck my fancy. But I spent another hour and a half chatting with a friend of mine who was helping to run a table there. We talked about old Doctor Who comics, taking dogs for a walk in the snow, and whacking gasoline-filled tennis balls into an empty field because kids can get bored and stupid. We talked as friends do, about whatever topics came up, whether they had any direct correlation to what was going on at the show or not. It wound up being one of the better small conventions I’ve attended.
Next month, I’ll be off to C2E2, the first big show for me this convention season. The guest list includes everyone from Melissa Benoist to Mick Foley to Chris Claremont to Ramon Perez, and there will be hundreds of people selling stuff there. But what I’m most excited about so far is an RPG session an out-of-town friend of mine is setting up.
What took me far too long to realize was that fandom, when it’s most rewarding, isn’t about the stories or characters you enjoy. It’s about hooking up with other people and sharing that enjoyment. Not only of those stories and characters, but that enjoyment of each other. Fandom, when it’s done right, is about the fans themselves, and the trappings of Doctor Who, Superman, or whatever don’t matter at all.